Should boys be boys and girls be girls, or should we avoid gender stereotypes? Emily Manning considers what our sons and daughters need to grow into happy adults.
There is no doubt that today’s children are much more aware and clued-up than we were at their age. Seeing my two-year-old daughter happily navigate my iPad or input the keylock code on my phone that is designed to keep her out, just serves to remind me of this on a daily basis.
But what impact does that have on our parenting style? Should we ‘manage’ our children differently; do we need to guide them more or less; and how much does society’s view impact on our individual family life?
The era of diversity in which we now live is a wonderful thing – for the most part. I love that my daughter will grow up with friends of other nationalities and religions, or that she has already experienced foods I wasn’t familiar with until my teens – but when we went to a new playgroup recently and the organiser assured me the toys were all “gender neutral”, I immediately bristled at the idea that children were now being shepherded into politically correct playtime.
As a child who didn’t have any interest in dolls or all things pink, I wondered what to expect when my own daughter arrived. Despite having a wide range of toys to choose from – including typical ‘boy’ toys like a garage, farm animals and cars – she will still gravitate to her dolls, teddies that are referred to as her “babies”, anything with Hello Kitty on it, a handbag, and her well-stocked collection of blingy toddler jewellery.
Watching my daughter with her very best friend – a boy, who is the same age – the gender divide couldn’t be clearer. They may play with the same toys, but while he is charging the animals into one another, shouting “bang!” and throwing them up in the air as if there’s been an explosion, she is happily tucking them up under a blanket and singing them to sleep. They both have the same toy garage, and while he will drive the cars round and round or up and down, she will use the ramp as a slide for her doll and the petrol pump as a hairdryer.
The old adage “boys will be boys” has lasted this long for a reason – it’s true. Give a little boy a toy car, some sticks or a mud pile, and they are happy. Boisterous play and pretending to be pirates or cowboys isn’t about children being noisy and aggressive, it’s a vital tool in the development of their imagination.
There are many who will say that we need to rein in boys’ natural curiosity and boisterous behaviour, but the reality is that boys are simply more active than girls. They don’t want to sit down and colour or draw, they want action-packed, energy-fuelled fun that usually involves dirt. It’s not a stereotype, it’s just reality.
While it’s important to encourage our children to play and be creative, it’s equally important to balance this and ensure that we aren’t sidelining them with emotional stereotypes. Teaching boys that “big boys don’t cry” or that being a boy means always having to be tough, strong and resilient, is just as harmful as telling your daughter she must be dainty, docile and delicate. We need our children – both boys and girls – to understand their emotions, be able to express themselves and to feel confident and self-assured.
I want to shield my daughter from everything – I am that mother – but I find myself having to fight this urge and let her experience things for herself. If she jumps off the top of the slide, well let’s hope she’ll learn not to do it again. And if she thinks getting off the roundabout mid-spin is a good idea, she probably won’t the next time. Let’s face it, much as we would like to, we can’t protect them from everything. Allowing them to make their own decisions is as much a part of parenting as picking them up when they fall.